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For reasons that are unclear, sales of soft-top and al fresco vehicles have traditionally been proportionately greater in northern climes, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, for example, than in Southern California or Italy.

Maybe it's because when the sun finally does break through in countries where it rains half the time, people want to take full advantage of it. Maybe motorists in sunny locales are just too blasé about the sunshine.

Whatever the reason, Audi and Volkswagen have taken full advantage of the situation. VW has had a convertible of one type or another in its lineup for at least 50 years, while Audi introduced its A4 Cabriolet in 2002. Two years after that, it debuted the high-performance S4.

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But the S4 Cabriolet was not a convertible, according to Audi. Apparently, it was - and still is - "a year-round German performance sedan" that also happened to offer an open-air driving experience. Incidentally, VW says the same thing about its Eos convertible.

The first edition of the S4 Cabriolet was also one of Audi's "halo" cars. In other words, it showcased the company's technology and was meant to heighten the desirability of the brand.

Power was amply provided by a 4.2-litre V-8 that developed an impressive 340 horsepower at 7,000 rpm, and you could mate it to either a six-speed manual or six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission. This engine was also used in the A6 and A8 sedans.

When you slid behind the wheel of the S4 Cabriolet, you had an immensely fast car on your hands; one that could rocket from 0 to 100 km/h in well under six seconds. And it made beautiful sounds in the process - almost like a muffled Formula One race car. Unsurprisingly, it could get you into trouble with the law before you could say "cabriolet."

And here's a little technical highlight for gearheads: the V-8 powerplant in the '04 S4 was made to fit into its rather cramped engine bay by replacing the front drive-belts with chains and relocating them to the back of the engine - against the firewall.

To distinguish it from the garden-variety A4 Cabriolet, the S4 also had a slightly different grille treatment, redesigned bumpers, discreet chrome exhaust tips and, of course, the S4 badging.

It was about 30 millimetres lower to the ground, and featured stiffer spring rates and thicker front and rear stabilizer bars. To save weight, the trunk lid was made from plastic composites and housed the radio antenna.

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And, being an Audi, it also came with the company's trademark Quattro all-wheel-drive, which made the S4 almost as fast through the snow and gravel as it was in a straight line. Regardless of the road surface, the S4 Cabriolet was as much a sports car as it was a performance convertible: toss-able and rock-steady at high speeds.

Inside, you were greeted by Audi's Nappa leather interior, with a climate control system, seating for four, a rear wind deflector, Bose stereo system and one of the most tastefully appointed cockpits in the industry all coming standard. Heated front seats were likewise standard equipment in Canada.

The power top, which was double-lined with a heated glass rear window, deployed in one touch in about 20 seconds, and there were no windows to wind down or latches to release. You just hit the console-mounted button, and Bob was your uncle.

Safety equipment included front airbags, oversize side airbags that were mounted in the door frame and an automatic rollover protection system that deployed if you turned turtle.

None of this came cheap. In 2004, the S4 Cabriolet retailed for well over $81,000, with another $1,600 for the Tiptronic automatic transmission option.

You could also order a DVD-based navigation system, tire-pressure monitoring system and a heated rear seat, among other things.

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These days, you'll part with around $29,000 for a five-year-old S4 Cabriolet, depending upon equipment level and whether it has the Tiptronic gearbox. That's quite a drop from its original MSRP of $81,350.

Consumer Reports magazine is lukewarm about this vintage of Audi, giving the S4 Cabriolet mixed reviews for things like the fuel and cooling systems. It does like the engine, transmission, brakes and paint quality, however. Most of this organization's remarks and grades apply to the S4 sedan as well.

Ditto with market research company J.D. Power, which doesn't have a lot of data on file for the S4 Cabriolet. Based on information collected for the A4 sedan, J.D. Power gives this model "about average" predicted reliability.

Given its original high price tag, the S4 almost qualifies for exotic car status and potential buyers should bear in mind that the chances are pretty good the car has been run hard and put through its paces on a regular basis.

There's just one safety recall from Transport Canada to report. It's a fairly minor glitch involving possibly faulty Xenon headlight deflectors. Dealers will correct the problem, gratis.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has this on file as well, and a mere four technical safety bulletins. Two of these involve cooling system issues, one is for improperly torqued wheel lug-nuts, and the fourth is a service advisory for aiming the headlights.

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Original Base Price: $81,350; Black Book Value: $29,300; Red Book Value: $28,400

Engine: 4.2-litre V-8

Horsepower/Torque: 340 hp/302 lb-ft

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Transmission: Six-speed manual/automatic

Drive: All-wheel-drive

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 15.8 city/10.2 highway (manual transmission); premium gas

Alternatives: BMW M3, Mercedes CLK 55, Jaguar XKR

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